When Is A Cliché Not A Cliché?

I seem to be running a one-woman vendetta against the so-called ‘rules’ of writing, which strike me ever more like literary use-by dates, or a way of making decisions that prevents us from engaging our own senses in the matter. Just recently I keep coming across cries of ‘cliché!’ where I’m not convinced that a) it is a cliché or b) that it matters even so.

So, the definition of a cliché is:

is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.’

But how are we to distinguish this from a phrase or an idiom or a maxim? It seems to me that the word cliché gets used for all of them. Where for instance, on the scale of cliché would you place such phrases as: ‘the answer to a prayer’ or ‘to make life a misery for someone’ or ‘not to have a leg to stand on’, all common expressions that I’ve come across recently in literary texts that sounded fine in context to me. Or even trickier, how would you evaluate the way that certain verbs take a limited number of objects? For instance, flirting with death or disaster are the other linguistic options to flirting with people (which tells you all you need to know about flirtation, I think). If we’ve only got two other options beyond the obvious one, should we avoid them through inevitable overuse? On the other end of the scale, taking someone for granted is a well-worn phrase not least because it’s the neatest, most economical way of describing a situation that commonly exists. Does that mean I have to avoid it, and find some sprawling circumlocution instead?

I found this site, a comprehensive list of clichés, and it’s positively enormous. Just from the list beginning with ‘a’, I found the following, which I would argue against as clichés:

Abandon ship – are captains in crisis now supposed to think up linguistically creative ways of expressing this?

Achilles heel – how else would we designate this part of the body? And what other way is there of expressing the figurative idea, except by long-winded explanation?

As luck would have it/As the crow flies – are these really without meaning now, or unpleasant to the ear?

Already got one paw on the chicken coop/As welcome as a skunk at a lawn party – not that I’m enamoured of either phrase, but I’d never heard of them before in my life. They can’t be clichés to me in that case.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it’s a quotation, and unavoidable at funerals.

Then there’s this site, which quite interestingly lists the most disliked clichés, as voted for somewhere or other online. Can we really object to individual words, like ‘literally’ and ‘actually’? We might dislike the frequency or lack of accuracy with which they are used, but that doesn’t make them clichés according to the definition of the term.

It’s also interesting how many clichés first came to life as jargon, particularly in the business world or on the sports field – blue sky scenario, thinking outside of the box, going forward, etc. Is jargon just cliché in waiting? It particularly tickled me to find so many online articles relating to business writing entitled ‘clichés to avoid like the plague’. Do you think they know what they did there? (and is that one still permissible or is it exhausted now?)

And what if you wanted to use a cliché but in an ironic or knowing way? What if you wanted to say ‘better the devil you know’ or ‘all’s fair in love and war’ either because the very triteness of the phrase indicates there is much more beyond it, or because despite the vastness of human nature, it sometimes happens that people behave and situations evolve just as they have always done for thousands of years. I don’t like this thought that whole areas of language have been forbidden to me. I remember Colette saying that it was pointless to search for new and outlandish ways of saying things; the best you could hope for was that one word, by its proximity, would freshen another up.  Isn’t it best sometimes to consider how a phrase works in a passage, rather than condemn it out of hand?

But then, I think my sense of cliché is very different to that of other people. Here’s the sort of thing that bothers me in narrative: when protagonists bite their lip or chew at their thumbnail in moments of indecision, or when they sigh a lot before speaking. I think it should be banned for would-be lovers to hate each other initially, and I’m not sure that vampires can be used for anything at all for at least a decade now. Linguistic clichés can make me laugh, they can have a resonance or a musicality that pleases. Situational clichés, behavioural clichés, I find much more annoying.

50 thoughts on “When Is A Cliché Not A Cliché?

  1. Talk about going for it, taking the bull by the horns, the octopus by the tentacles, the hawk by the talons, the boa by the constrictions! Could the problem be with the obsession with the new, the different, which seems to be so important at this moment in time, under the current circumstances? After an effort to shed light on the situation, I rest my case. On a related theme you might like
    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/30/091130crbo_books_wood.

    • Bookboxed, that is a fabulous link, thank you! And like Stefanie, I am now absolutely determined to be taking octopi by tentacles wherever and whenever possible (which judging by Paul Auster, ought to be quite frequently!). On a serious note, yes, I think the celebration of the new is very much in fashion, only we haven’t got any new left, and so recycling the old in intriguing ways is where we end up. Hmmm, that is a more profound thought than I expected to get out of this post, thank you!

  2. ‘And what if you wanted to use a cliché but in an ironic or knowing way?’ – Yes I do this all the time, but because tone doesn’t come over well in writing it does still make them sound like cliches. Works better in person I think unless the writer is skilled, otherwise you just end up with a lot of ” ” marks symbolising air quotes.

    ‘For instance, flirting with death or disaster are the other linguistic options to flirting with people (which tells you all you need to know about flirtation, I think). ‘ You can flirt with a decision too right? Initialy I thought you might flirt with cake and went off on a whole ‘what other foods/products’ thing but decided they would all be shorthand for ‘flirts with decision to consume’.

    • Heh, yes, I think you can indeed flirt with decisions, which may of course bring disaster in their wake! And oh, how frustrating it is when voices are so much richer and open to modulation than written words. It’s like the way emails are always a bit on the cold side unless you actively work to warm them up!

  3. I just posted on my blog and WordPress provided this timely quote: There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. W. Somerset Maugham
    Isn’t genre a cliche as well? I mean, all those vampire novels, or all those lovely books about serial killers coming to get you, as advertised at our railway stations.

    • Yes, genre can be very cliched, though the best of the bunch work with conventional elements in unusual ways, or at least just do it really well! Love that Somerset Maugham quote, though. Fantastic.

  4. Agreed, cliched responses to situations that are supposed to be a surprise to the character (even if not to the reader) frustrate me mightily but a cliche phrase or two probably wouldn’t bother me unless they made up the majority of the text.

  5. All rules in writing are a pain! I was at a writing workshop on Tuesday and participants kept saying – I thought you weren’t supposed to do x,y or z. And the tutor patiently replied with some version of ‘be aware of what you are doing, of the alternatives, of your choices, and do what you want.’
    Same with cliches, isn’t it? Using cliches can be a form of voice, or to point out that something really is hackneyed, or just the right expression. No rules about cliches, just be aware …

    • Oh they are – precisely because they exert a stranglehold over creativity, leading to all those ‘shouldn’t’s and ‘mustn’t’s which are so against the freedom to do whatever works. I completely agree that being aware is the saving grace.

  6. For writers:
    If you know it is cliché and use it because you are lazy, stop. If you do not know it is cliché, read more until you do.

    For critics:
    If you are focused on a few clichés more than the brilliance of the entire work, you must be a first-year writing student.

    If you are not, then you are either a hack who doesn’t know anything about critical writing, or just an unhappy person bent on wanking up someone’s day.

    For blogs:
    It’s a blog. Anything goes.

  7. Brava! I’m currently railing against rules and regulations too (not even about cliches–that’s just the tip of the iceberg), especially when it comes to what we’re supposed to produce so that agents and publishers will like our works. I have a friend who wrote a cozy mystery that didn’t sell because she went outside the rules for one thing: her protagonist goes on a treasure-hunting adventure to Scotland to solve the mystery. God forbid you have a cozy-natured novel that doesn’t take place in a quaint village with cat lovers and knitters!

    Agents/publishers do readers a disservice with this limited thinking. And this is why we get workshops — as Caroline notes above — in which we’re taught the formulas that agents/publishers like (for the moment).

    Anyhow, my friend? She has VERY successfully indie-published. (ARTIFACT, Gigi Pandian, great read!). Just goes to show…

    And as for cliches, they’re easy to use without thinking about them, so maybe that’s the problem sometimes…We could tend to rely on them when in some cases, a more creative approach would be stronger. HOWever, to outlaw them? Please.

    (OK, done venting. You hit a cord today. :-))

    • I’m glad for your friend, and always really annoyed by industry professionals who say, well the 18th century doesn’t sell, unless it’s Regency, and we accept mermaids but not dystopian fiction, etc, etc. Gah! So frustrating and foolish. Hands up which of us reads the same book over and over? I think there is a hierarchy of cliches, with corny and distressing at one end and elegant and slightly amusing at the other. But I don’t think you can ever avoid them altogether unless you want to write a very experimental text!

  8. Other than grammar and punctuation I don’t think there should be any rules for writing and even grammar and punctuation are open for playing with. Never use cliches is a “rule” for people who don’t know how to write. I think an experienced writer can use cliches all she wants. their effectiveness and deployment are all about context. You can put that in your pipe and smoke it😉

    • Oh love it. Next thing you know, she’ll be looking for sentences beginning with ‘But’ or ‘Because’. Thankfully, your daughters have you as their mother and I have every faith in their writing styles!

    • Oh but that preceded the vampire rush, so it’s quite okay. I’ve been watching the early series of Buffy lately, and they show up just how derivative Twilight was!

  9. It seems to me that a cliché is not always doomed to remain a cliché, and that a good writer can help provide succor for the cliché to get out of its rut and live a little. There’s a passage in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Peloponnese where he is describing the rugged, mountainous terrain of the Mani region and uses one of your phrases above, “as the crow flies,” quite literally to suggest that even crows must reckon with the towering mountains, and so “as the crow flies” is actually quite a bit further than the metaphorical straight line that the cliché implies.

    • Ah, now that’s beautiful and exactly the sort of thing I had in mind. I love to see a good writer refresh language in that way and use its rich history. Thank you for that perfect example.

  10. What a wonderful thing from Colette! That’s a lovely succinct way of describing that phenomenon — it’s what I love about Salman Rushdie. He’s not saying anything spectacularly new, really, but he juxtaposes ideas and phrases that work absolutely beautifully together.

    • Exactly – there are some authors who really use language creatively. That’s what singles out the true wordsmiths in my mind. Ali Smith always does it for me. And you remind me I must read another Rushdie novel. I was more taken with the one I read than I expected to be, and came away impressed.

  11. At the beginning of the piece I was in complete agreement with you. Rules belong in sport; not in art…with the possible exception of one rule that says: In art you can do whatever you want, in whichever way you want, as long as it contributes to the message you are trying to communicate. And I was entertained by the way you skipped through the minefield of cliches (I don’t know how to do accents on this keyboard). My pet peeve at the moment is the overuse of the word “iconic”. Okay, I know it’s not a cliche because its a word but it riles me in the same way to hear journalists stick “iconic” in front of everything from the Sydney Harbor Bridge, to the Koala, to a blinking racehorse. (The “blinking” was an expletive. I did not mean to infer that the racehorse in question was wearing blinkers). I even heard a journalist recently refer to the statue of Saddam Hussein (apparently it was the anniversary of its destruction) as: “The Iconic statue of Saddam Hussein.” Well of course it was iconic! Isn’t that the purpose of a statue of a famous person. But then I got to your last paragraph, where you put me in my place. My characters have been found guilty of lip-biting on occasion; and various forms of sighing (although never in the sense of swooning). But I do this for a particular reason – to manufacture a dramatic pause. In music, one has at one’s disposal, syntax to signify a pause. In writing, I suppose one can use elipsis. But then that becomes a cliche of sorts (c.f. the work of Blaise Cendrars). Perhaps I am just too lazy to look for other ways to increase the tension. But your article has certainly “put the wind up” me, if I may be permitted that final cliche.

    • I think it’s perfectly okay to dislike overuse of a word or a term (and just watch how ‘fifty shades of grey’ is going to be used for everything under the sun until we’re sick to death of it). As for lip biting and sighing, well, I suppose I think that in real life, when there are dramatic pauses, what actually happens is that people freeze. They are always sighing and biting lips and thumbs and whatever generally, but when real drama takes place it’s silence that’s most effective. But still, you may do what you like with your own WIP, and as we’ve been discussing how writers can take cliches and refresh them, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do it with those gestures if you wanted!

  12. I’m fine with someone using a commonly seen expression if they are using it correctly and imaginatively. What happens though is people just get lazy or use an expression because they think it makes them sound “trendy” . Most business expressions fall into that camp. Going forward is one of my pet peeves

    • Yes, I’m sure you are right and that fashion has a lot to answer for. I do so wish I could remember where I read it, but there was a scene in a novel in which the character – a businessman – used the words ‘going forward’ over and over and over, in every possible way. It was played for sarcasm and was very funny.

  13. I hate rules which seem to have been made just to give ‘them’ something else to hit ‘us’ over the head with. I have never forgotten the day one of my nine year olds came to me and asked, “Please Miss —–, why can’t I start a sentence with because?” “You can,” I replied and was about to go on and explain the precautions you have to take when he thrust a text book under my nose and said, “Oh no you can’t. It says so here.” I thought about throwing the book out of the window, but it would have sailed past the Head’s office, so threw it at the ceiling instead. Much joy from all surrounding nine year olds.

    • Lol! There’s a class I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in! It must be awful trying to teach children creative writing when even the textbooks are against you. And children are so very quick and adept when it comes to rules and what you may or may not do to bend them.

  14. Applause!

    Despite being an editor, I balk at a lot of the rules for writing I see around. Some of them (like those in Strunk and White) can be useful for people at a particular early stage in their writing life, but they’re like training wheels; at some point, you should be able to remove them and go forward on your own. Lists of cliches and such can be helpful in reminding writers to think about what the words they choose, but outright bans are hardly ever helpful. And even standard rules can be broken with no danger of misreading or misunderstanding. Language is not such a fragile thing. If you bend it, it won’t break.

    You’ll probably enjoy this post, on a similar theme: http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/04/04/elimination-of-the-fittest/

    • And another great link, thank you Teresa! I love that. And I also love your description of rules as ‘training wheels’ for authors. Oh I am so going to annoy people on the writing sites I visit by using that phrase, and enjoy it. Language is not a fragile thing, no and bending rather than breaking is a beautiful phrase too!

  15. I always think of George Orwell’s list of rules, which end with something along the lines of ‘break any of these, when necessary’.

    I think you can usually tell when a novel is written according to a list of rules. It probably prevents a novel being very bad, but it also precludes greatness, I think.

    Excellent, thought-provoking post, Victoria!

  16. I like what George Orwell says about cliches being “dead metaphors.” Anything that makes your eye skip over it is a cliche. The one about having a paw on the henhouse is evocative to most of us now that fewer people actually keep henhouses and have to worry about predators getting near the chickens. David Sedaris’ example of a woman who unthinkingly exchanged words in the phrase “fox in the henhouse” was a good example of a cliche.
    A rural saying that is nowhere near a cliche because so few people have heard of it is a description of messy hair (from my husband’s grandfather, who spent a lot of his time fishing on lakes in southern Arkansas/northern Lousiana): “your hair looks like a stump full of granddaddies.” Evidently, daddy-long-legs will clump up on a stump in the water to stay dry.

    • I would love to see how that ‘stump full of grandaddies’ would go down in an English conversation!🙂 I’ll have to casually drop it in one day and see what happens. I like the old cliches that can come back once their familiar context has gone – just like the henhouse ones. That language has a history is something to be celebrated and investigated I think, not viewed as an embarrassment. But yes, the real meaning of cliche is something that dulls the prose and averts the eye, something we can’t be bothered to expend the energy to read.

  17. I don’t think I’ve ever thought so much about cliches–so thank you. I had no idea that the use of some of these was such a minefield (hence why I am a reader and not a writer!). Maybe cliches or the use of cliches has become a cliche in and of themselves (or maybe I shouldn’t try to be funny…). As for words like actually and literally…well, I use them all the time and should probably be more aware of it, but sometimes as you say the easiest way to say something is just with the easiest or most common words. Interesting things to think about!

    • And sometimes the easiest way is exactly the right way! And sometimes it can be funny. There are so many factors when using language, including context and audience and what surrounds each phrase. But I do think of you as a writer as much as a reader – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you use properly cliched language.🙂

  18. I do get annoyed when my 20 something colleagues at work misuse and overuse the word “literally”. I just have to remind myself that it is this generation’s version of “totally”, which I misused and overused in my 20s!

    I typically read more for plot and character than for beautifully turned phrases, and when I am caught up in a story, I generally don’t notice the writing. But I would probably prefer to read a book beginning with “it was a dark and stormy night” to reading overblown, purple prose that is trying, at all costs, to avoid a cliché.

    • Oh I do agree. I really hate trying-too-hard language that gets in the way of reading. And it’s perfectly okay not to like the overuse of words, although your memory of the seductions of ‘totally’ made me laugh!

  19. Pingback: Designing a Poem or Why We Have Clichés | Which Silk Shirt

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